The Cape, Chapter I, Section 6

USAF Space Organizations and Programs

Origins of the TITAN IV Program

The Space Transportation System accumulated an impressive number of "firsts" during its first three years of test flights and operations, but the Air Force was concerned about the Shuttle's slower-than-anticipated turnaround time and the impact it would have on the Defense Department's launch schedule in the long term. The Air Force had already received nine TITAN 34Ds from Martin Marietta by September 1981, and it would receive four more 34Ds to meet vital military mission requirements and fill the anticipated Shuttle/DOD mission gap. As Shuttle delays continued, this was clearly not enough. In testimony before Congress in March and April 1984, Air Force officials argued that a new, more powerful, commercially-procured expendable launch vehicle (CELV) ought to be purchased to support those military spacecraft programs that were too vital to become entirely dependent on the Shuttle, particularly in time of war. Put simply, the Defense Department and the Air Force believed that dependency on the Shuttle for those missions was foolish, since any catastrophic accident could ground the Shuttle fleet for unacceptable lengths of time. Although Congress appeared willing to accept CELVs in the interest of national security, it was not willing to accept the commercial contract arrangements proposed by the Air Force. Instead, the CELVs (now called Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicles) would be funded incrementally, beginning with about $5 million in new authorizations and $30 million in reprogrammed funds in 1985. This was the beginning of the TITAN IV program, which reaffirmed the Air Force's long-term commitment to expendable launch vehicles into the 1990s.38

The Air Force had already reprogrammed $1 million for the CELV's concept definition in January 1984, and, now that Congress accepted the proposal, Space Division prepared to award a contract for the initial study and development of the CELV based on replies to a revised Request For Proposal (RFP) published in July 1984. Though NASA protested the CELV action, the agency grudgingly submitted its own candidate: a TITAN III liquid core and CENTAUR upper stage supported by three solid rocket boosters. Convair's candidate was a greatly enlarged ATLAS (e.g., 200 inches in diameter) equipped with five new liquid rocket engines, four strap-on solid rocket motors and a CENTAUR upper stage. The winning proposal was Martin Marietta's TITAN 34D7 (later known as the TITAN IV). It consisted of a lengthened TITAN core, a Shuttle-configured CENTAUR G upper stage and two seven-segment (versus the 34D's five-and-one-half segment) solid rocket motors. Martin Marietta believed their new vehicle would be capable of placing a 10,000-pound payload into geosynchronous orbit. Space Division awarded the initial $5,100,000 contract to Martin Marietta on 28 February 1985. Though the initial contract was very small, great significance was attached to its options for fabrication and delivery of complete TITAN IV vehicles. At the time the contract was awarded, those options were valued at $2,095,800,000.39

Before the Challenger disaster in January 1986, the Air Force planned to purchase approximately ten TITAN IVs. The Cape anticipated two TITAN IV launches per year beginning in October 1988, and the Air Force intended to launch its remaining ATLAS, TITAN 34D and converted TITAN II missile/space boosters as well. Clearly, the Air Force was committed to unmanned launch operations in the 1980s, and the service maintained that commitment when faced with two TITAN 34D launch mishaps in 1985 and 1986. On 28 August 1985, a TITAN 34D launch failure at Vandenberg led to an extensive accident investigation and a temporary suspension of TITAN 34D launch operations. Following the Challenger tragedy in January, another TITAN 34D was launched from Vandenberg on 18 April 1986 with disastrous results. That mishap effectively grounded TITAN 34D operations on both coasts until an aggressive recovery program could be implemented to ensure the TITAN's reliability. The next TITAN 34D was launched successfully from Vandenberg on 26 October 1987.40

Following the tragic and costly launch failures of 1986, Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge presented the Defense Department's plan for space launch recovery on 31 July 1986. Secretary Aldridge had championed the CELV concept earlier, and he now unveiled a plan that called for the development of a "mixed fleet" of expendable launch vehicles. (The Air Force had never completely given up that concept in the first place, and the plan confirmed the wisdom of spreading launch risks among several dissimilar launch vehicle systems.) Among his recommendations, the Secretary proposed expanding the scope of TITAN II and TITAN IV space operations and initiating a new medium launch vehicle program. After considerable discussion and thought, Congress and the Reagan Administration agreed to the plan. The plan implemented a shift in U.S. space policy away from the Shuttle for many military missions, and it heralded a whole new era of opportunities for the unmanned booster companies.41

Figure 34: TITAN 34D launch failure
18 April 1986

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925